STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead met with members of the media on Monday afternoon to preview the 18th-ranked Bulldogs' upcoming SEC West showdown with top-ranked Alabama this coming Saturday.
Kickoff between the Bulldogs (6-3, 2-3 SEC) and the Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 SEC) is set for 2:30 p.m. CT at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Head coach Joe Moorhead – Press Conference
November 5, 2018
“Starting off and recapping the Louisiana Tech game, I thought it was another great team win and that we had an excellent Homecoming crowd and fan support. We are always appreciative of the people who come out and give us an incredible home-field advantage.
I thought we performed well and took positive steps forward in all three phases of the game. We won the explosive play battle and the turnover margin, the two most critical factors in determining the outcome of games. I thought we also did a great job with situational football: won third down, won red zone and, for the first time in a while, won the drive start battle, by five yards, which was great.
I am excited with our progress, in particular the past two games. [We are] happy to be playing our best football and showing steady improvement in November. I think that is the sign of a team that is heading in the right direction. Certainly, bowl eligible for the ninth-straight season, which is a school record. To extend the season and have an opportunity to play another game, and develop our young guys during that stretch of practices leading up to the bowl and to be one of 13 new Power 5 head coaching hires and to be one of three with six wins at this point, I think speaks volumes for our program and where we are headed. We are certainly excited for that as well.
Some of our Players of the Game and miscellaneous notes; on offense, our Staff Player of the Game was Nick Fitzgerald, on defense, the Co-Players of the Week were Montez Sweat and Mark McLaurin, and on special teams, the Co-Players of the Week were Tim Washington and Deddrick Thomas. Our Scout Team Players of the Week for offense was running back Robert Rivers, Esaias Furdge for the defense and Christian Roberson for special teams. Those guys played an instrumental role and don't get a lot of fanfare, but replicating the opposing team's looks and giving us an excellent representation of the speed of the game, those guys are very critical to our success. Student-Athletes of the Week were Kendell Jones and Austin Williams.
Injuries, offensively, Kylin Hill, we are feeling really good about. He is day-to-day with a lower body. Osirus Mitchell is day-to-day with an upper body. Defensively, Sh'mar Kilby-Lane is day-to-day with a lower body and Jaquarius Landrews is day-to-day with a lower body.
Moving ahead to Alabama. Obviously, a lot of this goes without saying, but we will go through the process anyways. The head coach is Nick Saban. He is 141-20 in his 12th season as the head coach [at Alabama]. I don't think there is enough time in the press conference or ink in the printer to go through all of his superlatives. Obviously, the best head coach in college football right now and arguably one of the best of all time. He has won six national championships and Alabama clinched the SEC West [Division title] with their win over LSU last week.
Offensively, the coordinator is Michael Locksley, a Baltimore native. I know Mike and he is doing a phenomenal job. A balanced offense, incorporates the RPO [Run-Pass Option] and the west coast passing attack. Averaging 51 points per game and, once again, showing a lot of balance: 224 [yards per game] on the ground and 341 [yards per game] in the air. Their top players, and I can essentially go through the entire two deep, and I don't want to insult anyone, so we had to pick some guys out. Obviously, Tua [Tagovailoa] is having a Heisman-caliber season with 2,361 yards passing, 27 [passing] touchdowns. He is accurate and elusive, can beat you with his arms and beat you with his legs. Najee Harris and Damien Harris have 594 and 554 [rushing yards], respectively. Both are powerful and explosive. Jerry Jeudy has 880 yards and 10 touchdowns [receiving], and Henry Ruggs has eight [receiving] touchdowns. Both are incredibly explosive, very fast and excellent route runners. Coach [Josh] Gattis, who I worked with at Penn State, is their [wide] receivers coach. He is doing an awesome job developing those guys. They can make you miss and are definitely a threat.
Defensively, Tosh Lupoi is their defensive coordinator. A three- and four-down [linemen] mix, two-high and one-high zones. They bring pressure, not a ton. When you have the front four or front six that they have, you really don't need to bring extra people to generate pressure, but when they do, it is very impressive. They are ranked third in the country in red zone defense, fourth in sacks per game and 11th in total defense. They are right behind [our defense] in the rankings, giving up right around 14 or 15 points per game. Their top [defensive] lineman is No. 92 Quinnen Williams with 43 tackles, 12 for a loss, and four sacks. People have him earmarked as a top-five [NFL] Draft pick. Linebacker, No. 32, Dylan Moses, with 48 tackles, eight for loss and 2.5 sacks. [Moses] was a 2017 All-SEC Freshman [honoree]. And, defensive back Saivion Smith, who is an incredible ball player. [He has] 27 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups. The entire secondary, and really we could talk through every single player on the defense and find similar things to say.
On special teams, Jeff Banks is in his first year, he was previously at Texas A&M, [and his unit] is extremely well coached. Their return [units] are averaging 14 yards per punt return and 25 per kickoff return. They have seven tackles inside the 20 [yard line] on kickoff coverage. Jaylen Waddle is their punt returner, Josh Jacobs is their kick returner and a couple of guys who fly down in kickoff coverage are D.J. Lewis and Jaylen Moody. That is another strength of their game, the special teams.
In closing, we are certainly excited for the opportunity to play the reigning national champions. We have the utmost respect for Coach Saban, his program and their players. We talk all the time here in our building and with our kids about the term "Championship Standard" and, quite frankly, this is what we are chasing. Alabama is the gold standard in this league. I told the team last night, no one falls to the top of the mountain. These guys have worked their tails off and earned the right to be there. It is our job to go out there and try to knock them off. As always, our focus this week will be competing against our standard and not our opponent. Just because it is Alabama, just like last week was Louisiana Tech, and all of the opponents before that, we are not just going to say, 'hey, we really need to crank it up this week because it is Alabama.' We have to have a heightened awareness heading into the game that the margin of error is almost negligible. We are going to need great energy, great urgency and great precision. We will need to have a great week of practice in order to earn the right to take the field with confidence and play 60 minutes of football with phenomenal effort and tremendous execution, to give ourselves a chase to pull the game off.
I know our kids are excited. We [the coaching staff] are excited. This is part of the reason that I came here and I know certainly this is part of the reason why our kids chose Mississippi State: to compete in the most competitive division in all of college football and have a chance to play against a team of Alabama's caliber.”
On Nick Fitzgerald’s posture in the pocket, as well as his ball placement on deeper throws …
“A few things. We have talked to him about reacting and not thinking on game day. We don't want him to have paralysis by analysis. We have [told] him that he has done the work during the week, so be confident in what you do. Take your drops, make your reads and see what you see, then throw the ball. I don't want to say we've simplified some things, but tried to...everything during the week, [we] make sure that we're putting our kids in position to be successful with the schemes. It's not what we know [as a staff], it is what they can execute. I think the [offensive] line has done a good job protecting, the receivers have gotten open and all of that has come together nicely in the last two weeks.”
On scripting an opening offensive sequence …
“It varies by week. Historically, it is anywhere from 16 to 24. It depends on the week and what the defense does.”
On what he tries to accomplish with the opening offensive sequence script …
“I don't want to give the state secrets out. What we try to do is show the formations that we have and really want to see how people are defending us more than anything. We want to make sure we are getting through our formations, have some plays that give us an opportunity to be successful and move the ball. Once you see how teams are playing you, the possibility of generating some explosive plays based on those looks. I think that most people kind of do the same thing.”
On level of aggressiveness offensively early in games when you are the underdog …
“I don't think necessarily early, but you want to make sure that you're able to generate explosive plays. Yards are hard to come by against this defense, whether it’s on the ground or in the air, and I don't think you’re going to be able string together multiple twelve-, thirteen- and fifteen-play drives and kind of make your way down the field [like] that. At a certain point you’re going to have to take a chance, whether it’s by shot down the field, or a trick play or something that is going to generate a chunk of yards, as opposed to small increments. There hasn't been a ton of success against them offensively throughout the season when you look at all the games, but the teams that have moved the ball pretty well have been able to take advantage of some plays down the field.”
On coaching his team up knowing Alabama has one the last 10 meetings …
“We really don't look at the game in a historical context, whether it be last year, five years or ten years. We want to concentrate on the things we need to do this year. We discussed at our team meeting yesterday, that we're going to have to have a great week of practice, have a lot of urgencies and a lot of great body language. The scout team is going to have to a do a good job, because no matter how hard they go it’s going to be almost impossible to replicate the speed of the game and the physicality that [Alabama] presents in all three phases. Most importantly, knowing that the margin of error against a team this caliber is negligible. You don't have to play a perfect game, but got to be darn near close. You got to be in that range, because there not going to beat themselves and they're very well coached. They have a ton of talent and you have to find ways to make plays.”
On if the team will have a different feeling during practice this week …
“You'd be remised not to look at that way and I guess my point is that we’re not changing our approach, but there will be a heightened sense if awareness. Certainly, they know to be able to compete and have an opportunity to beat a team of this caliber, that a substandard week of practice is not going to get it down. Once again, the methodology and the approach is not going to change, but certainly the manner in which we game plan, the manner of which we practice and then how we play with our effort and procession on [Saturday] certainly has to have a heightened sense of awareness.”
On Maurice Smitherman from spring practice to now …
“I think he's matured a lot. I think his understanding of the game has improved. He's a smart kid with a good football IQ. Under Coach [Terrell] Buckley's tutelage and within the structure of Coach [Bob] Shoop's scheme, it gives you an opportunity to play a bunch of different techniques in that position: cloud corner with the ability to run support, some quarters, some man-to-man, and I think he possesses that skill set. I think every practice and every day you see him get a little bit better and that’s helping him gain confidence, as well.”
On knowing Alabama’s history before becoming a head coach in the SEC …
“I think it pre-dates Penn State. It’s certainly hard to ignore. Like I said, they're the gold standard of the league. They've done it the best for the longest time. When I say what we aspire to be, when we talk about bringing our first SEC Championship to Starkville since 1941. Coach [Saban] has a process and he sticks to it. We talk about with our guys a culture of accountability, a culture of productivity, a culture of persistence. Not only have they recruited at extremely high level for a long period of time, but they do an unbelievable job of player development, they do an unbelievable job with coaching and you can tell that the culture allows them to do the little things right when it gets to the big-game setting. I think that’s something that as we grow to become that type of program and aspire to do those things, those are things we're going to need to do as well.”
On the team’s offensive tackles …
“I think we got our confidence shook with [Josh Allen] from Kentucky. He had a day against us with the snap count. Then, [Jachai] Polite from Florida. Those are two really good pass rushers and since that point we've settled in a little bit. We've gone against some similar players and been able to not necessarily eliminate them but neutralize them a little bit. Just working on our drop back pass-protect technique and really provide those guys a little bit of help with changing the launch point and getting the ball out and using some chips with the tight ends and the backs. I think the rotation at left tackle between Greg [Eiland] and Tyre [Phillips] allow them both to stay fresh. I think Coach Johnson has done a good job the past few weeks with getting [Dareuan Parker] and Michael [Story], and some of those other guys in there as well to build some depth. Hopefully we can do that on the offensive line like we've been doing on the defensive line.”
On special teams coordinator Joey Jones, who played at Alabama …
“I'm sure coach has a lot of great memories from Alabama as a player, he is certainly beloved there, and deservedly so, but I think he's bleeding more Maroon and White, than Crimson now. I think it will be great for him when he goes back in there. I'm sure it will be emotional and very positive, but he's done a good job of managing that and making sure we need to get done what we need to on special teams. I'm sure it will be pretty cool for him.”
On Kylin Hill’s health and ability as a pass catcher …
“I'd say he was close [to 100 percent]. Putting a percentage [on it] would be speculating, but I know it wasn't 100 [percent]. He's a tough kid, gutted through it, wanted to play and [athletic trainer] Thomas [Callans] and his staff did a great job of getting him ready. I think that is something that we discussed earlier in the year, relative to running back carries. I know that both he and Aeris [Williams] are over six yards per carry and ranked, I think, No. 4 or 5 in the [SEC] in yards per carry. It's a chicken or the egg thing. Are they averaging that many yards per carry because we are handing the ball off to them in advantageous looks? I think it is about dispersal of the ball to playmakers. Whether we are handing it off to Kylin or finding a way to get him the ball on quick screens, swing screens or down the field matched up on the linebacker. It is about getting the ball in his hands, whether it is handing it off or throwing it, to me is immaterial.”
On Alabama’s strong rushing defense …
“We are going to need to do both [run and pass] to be balanced. That is probably the biggest change or sign of growth with the offense from LSU to now, is a concerted effort on my part to get back to what I believe, which is dictating the tempo of the game and not reacting to it, finding a way to be balance when teams are taking away the run by numbers or support and our willingness and ability to throw the ball out of the quick game or down the field and when you watch all of these games, you're not going to make a living handing the ball off up the middle against this front. It's just not realistic. We have to be creative in the ways that we run the ball and creative in the ways we get it on the perimeter and, quite frankly, being able to protect and get guys open. It is going to be a huge challenge. This is an excellent defense.”
On Tua Tagovailoa …
“I hope we are able to make it difficult on him. Like I said, Coach Locksley has done an unbelievable job in his first year as coordinator. I think they are up near 550 yards per game in total offense and over 50 points [per game]. So, once again, when great players like [Tagovailoa], I call them game wreckers, because they can take the games over by themselves, I don't know that it is ever necessarily a matter of stopping them, as it is neutralizing them or containing them. That is our hope with him. That is why I am a proponent of the dual-threat quarterback. He is a guy that can drop back, stay in the pocket, make his progressions and his reads, then push the ball down the field. At the same time, he can beat you with his feet on designed runs, or some of the big things you watch is when the play breaks down and he scrambles out of the pocket, then you see Ruggs or Jeudy flush out and make a play. He is a guy that certainly merits a ton of attention, and I know Coach Shoop and his staff are going to do a great job of putting a plan together.”
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